Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Masters of Their Domain 

Tonight we're going off to see Sarah Silverman. Hooray! My excitement about this and some recent conversations about Marc Salem's Mind Games prompted me to make a list (surprise, surprise) of some of the more extraordinary solo performers I have seen. I realized in compiling the list that it spanned categories: magicians, actors, comedians, and performance artists. But the common thread of working solo somehow made them a single category for me. Each of these performers has left their mark on me. With many of them, there is some object or visual or moment that for me is now forever indelibly different thanks to their efforts.

Bill Bailey
Bill Bailey is a British comedian and polymath who combines comedy, music and his own special brand of lunacy to create his shows. We went to see Bewilderness when it came to New York City. Bailey goes from sheer nutty verbal and musical randomness to truly philosophical, pointed and funny monologues. You never know what you're going to get. And the transformative object/moment? This can only be understood by those who've seen it: "I am the nemesis of the vole!" If you've seen it, it's funny. If you haven't you're...bewildered!

Eric Bogosian
The true New Yorker's solo act. I saw Bogosian first in the mid 80's doing Drinking in America. It was part of what inspired me to pursue theatre. (For those of you who don't know me, I no longer am.) The many characters Bogosian did with no costume or set changes, just wearing a white button down shirt and jeans was astounding to me. And his commitment to his characters, his full frontal assault on every unattractive nook and cranny. It was mind blowing. I continued to see him right up until he went to try out Hollywood. (That doesn't seem to have worked out so well.) And I miss him onstage. The big takeaway moment? A moment in Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead when I realized that the character he was doing was frighteningly like a family member and I looked at K. and we mouthed the name at the same time. Frankly, I will never view a guy and a grill quite the same way again.

Steve Cohen
Steve Cohen is a terrific close-up artist. He does intimate magic shows at a suite in the Waldorf in NYC and at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco. You will sit no more than 6 feet away and he will blow your mind. Doesn't matter how much you know about magic, his hands are incredible. The moment? This man took my wedding ring, somehow linked it someone else's ring ,and held the two joined rings in front of my face while spinning the rings in turn, while they were hanging from a pencil in his hand. I have no idea how he did that. Neither will you.

Eddie Izzard
The one and only executive transvestite comedian. We were fortunate to see him when he came to a tiny cabaret space in NYC years ago to do Dress to Kill. We were in the FRONT ROW. My god, you have no idea how charismatic he is when you're that close. He was just unbelievable. My FACE HURT after the show it was that funny. The most incredible moment: he was doing a bit about Englebert Humperdinck and talking about the outrageousness of the fact that this was not his birth name. That this man chose this name. And after a funny bit about that, he deadpanned, "You know, he just died." The audience went silent. Then he said, "No, he didn't." And everyone started laughing again. And then he said, "Yeah. Actually he did." And the audience stopped. Then he removed language all together and shook his head "no". Laughter. He nodded, affirming "yes". More laughter. He drew this out for a good ten minutes and people were sobbing. After that, for the rest of the show he was able to simply shake his head or nod to return the audience to that bit and it was hysterical again. I had never seen such a simple, stripped down form of humor provide such endless results. Brilliant.

John Leguizamo
He's been doing film lately, although not to my taste. But I saw John Leguizamo first in his 1991 breakout show at the Westside Theatre, Mambo Mouth. Then Spic-o-Rama and Sexaholix. Leguizamo is one of the most high-energy performers you will ever see. Every vertebrae is working during his shows. And when he's being funny? Forget about it. His stage presence, his characterizations and his observations are so deep and resonant. His most deeply personal show was Sexaholix and the scenes with him caring for his grandfather were heartbreaking. The memorable moment? In Mambo Mouth he ran a segment as an Hispanic man who had assimilated into America by becoming Japanese (!) and offering a seminar teaching other Latinos how to follow his example. Pointed, frightening, and blisteringly funny. He took zero prisoners.

Dimitri Martin
Dimitri Martin's not quite where some of the rest of these performers are, but just you wait. He's very young, he's brilliant, and if you haven't heard of him yet...YOU WILL. He's one of the most original comedians I've ever seen. His pieces are highly conceptual, completely unexpected and often very, very deadpan. We saw him first on his Comedy Central special and then at his one man show at UCB. I have to say, the moment where he brings his mother out on stage in his special was wonderfully surreal. Track him down.

Ricky Jay
The master. There can be only one. Ricky Jay is the most knowledgeable man in magic and the master of the close-up artists. When you see him, he will educate you as he blows your mind. He's begun doing larger shows in the last few years, but I loved it when he only played 50 seat theatres. It's still well worth your while to see him. I can't pin down a single moment so much as his aura. It's like being with someone who could just as easily have been a Harvard professional as a criminal. And thankfully he's decided on a third course of action: entertainment.

Sarah Jones
Sarah Jones right deserved the kudos she received for Bridge and Tunnel. She's another deep character performer, although with a penchant for changing coats. I was afraid from the reviews that Bridge and Tunnel was going to be totally hokey, but I left profoundly moved. It's no wonder that Meryl Streep produced the show. The moment? Her portrayal of a totally traditional Chinese mother lobbying the audience for her daughter's right to have a gay marriage. Strangely wrenching, beautiful and amazingly...hopeful. An inspiring performer to watch.

Marc Salem
Prepare to be totally freaked out. Marc Salem CAN READ YOUR MIND. He says he's not psychic, but frankly, I don't believe him for a minute. Sure he's got a PhD in psychology, sure he uses some standard tricks. But then watch him walk of the scale of what you know to be possible with an audience. I don't want to blow his show for you. I'll just say that his vacation bit stumped everyone I know who knows magic and psychology. None of them know how he does it. And neither will you. He's playing right now. GOOOOOOO.

Sarah Silverman
I'm going tonight!

Anna Deveare Smith
Anna Deveare Smith does something unusual. She interviews people for a long time to get the untold story of an event, such as the LA Riots. Then she talks the documentary text of the interviews and weaves them into a portrait of the human side of the event. No costumes, just a chameleon. Watching her move from a Korean woman to an orthodox Jewish man to whatever she wants is amazing. She seems to be *doing* so little. But somehow she does a lot.

Reno feels somewhat like an NYC-specific version of a younger, highly political, Bette Midler. We saw her 9/11 show, Rebel Without a Pause . I can't tell you what it was like to be in the tiny, Zipper Theater with Reno, except to say it was like being near a friendly, funny, hurricane. She was so raw, so real, so present and so generous. I literally laughed, cried, held my breath and laughed again. She is very special.

Paul Zaloom
Paul Zaloom blew my mind when I first saw him. I was in high school. He crosses puppetry, comedy, politics and science in the most peculiar brew. If you can find him performing, you really must see him to get a sense of what I'm talking about. He pulls together the most disparate topics and physical objects into astonishing agitprop theater and comedy. So while you or your kids may know him as Beakman from Beakman's World (a TV show I've never seen myself), but I know him as the man who during one of his early shows (I think it may have been Fruit of Zaloom) transformed two ordinary kitchen blenders into the Three Mile Island disaster. Honestly. I have never looked at a blenders the same way since.
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